The Rapidian

Heat Related Illness: Increasing Awareness for Grand Rapids Seniors

As the summer heats up it is important to pay attention to the signs and symptoms of heat related illnesses. This article gives tips for prevention and resources in Grand Rapids to keep seniors cool.
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Gerontology Network is just that—a network of nonprofit Affiliate organizations, that work together to enhance the quality of life and promote the independence of older adults, their families and care providers.  Established in 1979, Gerontology Network offers respite and support services, emergency response equipment and automated medication dispensers. We provide training and education, assessment, counseling and vision services.  We also partner with a variety of organizations to identify and meet the ever expanding needs of at-risk seniors in our community.



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As the summer heats up it is important to remember that older adults are more susceptible to the effects of heat. Heat related illnesses can cause serious injury or death, if left unattended.

Our bodies produce sweat to act as a natural cooling mechanism as it evaporates. When heat is coupled with humidity, like most Michigan summer days, evaporation is impaired. Those with health conditions like diabetes and high blood pressure are more susceptible to the heat. The American Red Cross advises us to learn how to recognize heat illnesses and how to treat these symptoms and illnesses. Signs of heat-related illnesses include nausea, dizziness, flushed or pale skin, heavy sweating and headaches.

Heat Cramps

Heat Cramps are muscular pains and spasms due to heavy exertion. They usually involve the abdominal muscles or the legs. It is generally thought that the loss of water and salt from heavy sweating causes the cramps. Get the person to a cool place and have them rest in a comfortable position. Give half a glass of cool water every 15 minutes. Do not let them drink too quickly and do not give fluids with caffeine or alcohol. Remove or loosen tight clothing and apply cool, wet cloths.

Heat Exhaustion

Heat Exhaustion is less dangerous than heat stroke and typically occurs when people exercise heavily or work in a warm and humid place where body fluids are lost due to sweating. Fluid loss causes blood flow to decrease in the vital organs, resulting in a form of shock. With heat exhaustion, sweat does not evaporate, as it should, possibly due to high humidity. Signals include cool, moist pale or flushed skin; heavy sweating; headache, nausea or vomiting; dizziness and exhaustion. Body temperature will be near normal. Follow the instructions for Heat Cramps to relieve Heat Exhaustion.

Heat Stroke

Also known as sunstroke, heat stroke is life threatening. The victim's temperature control system, which produces sweating to cool the body, stops working. The body temperature can rise so high that brain damage and death may result if the body is not cooled quickly. Signals include hot, red and dry skin, changes in consciousness and rapid, shallow breathing. Body temperature can be very high. Call 9-1-1, as Heat Stroke is life threatening. Then move the person to a cooler place and quickly cool the body. Wrap wet sheets around the body and fan it. If you have ice packs or cold packs, wrap them in a cloth and place them on each of the victim's wrists and ankles and on the neck to cool the large blood vessels. Watch for signals of breathing problems and make sure the airway is clear. Keep the person lying down.


Victims of heat-related illnesses should be moved to a cool place, given cool water to drink and ice packs or cool wet cloths applied to the skin. The American Red Cross also advises the following tips to stay cool:

  • Wear lightweight, light-colored clothing and hats;
  • Drink water - carry it with you and drink water even if you do not feel thirsty.
  • Avoid caffeine and alcohol which can dehydrate;
  • Eat small meals more often;
  • Avoid using salt tablets unless advised by a physician;
  • Slow down! Avoid strenuous activity; if you must do strenuous activity, do it during the coolest part of the day, 4:00 am to 7:00 am.
  • Stay indoors; if you do not have air conditioning and it is over 90 degrees, visit a mall, store, library or friend who does have air conditioning.
  • While fans do not cool the air, they will create airflow that can be cooling.

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Resources in Grand Rapids

  • Fans and air conditioning units are provided through funding by the Kent County Senior Millage to those who are at risk for heat related illnesses. This resource is targeted to those with low income (below $21,780 and assets below $35,000) and live in their own home, with family or in an apartment.


  • For homeowners there is also a program that can assist with your homes energy efficiency. Knowledgeable professionals can come to your home, inspect and help with insulation and furnace repair and replacement. This service is also extremely helpful for managing utility bills in the summer and long winter months!


Kent County Disaster Mental Health & Human Services Committee: 
Below is a link to the Kent County Health Department's fact sheet on staying safe during hot weather.
Kent County and City of Grand Rapids Emergency Management request that situations requiring non-emergency assistance be referred to United Way's 2-1-1, as dispatch centers are currently very busy. As always, 9-1-1 should be called for life-threatening issues.

For more information and to find out if you or someone you know may qualify for services; call our Outreach & Assistance specialists today!

Call 616-456-6135

or email [email protected]

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